When you tick off the Outfit (aka the syndicate or the mob) and they know your face, you can’t expect to live long. After Parker’s quasi-victory in THE HUNTER, he has to make the Outfit’s job of finding him and erasing him as difficult as possible. He does this by getting a new face from a questionable doctor in Nebraska. While there, he meets the doctor’s staff. A cook called May, a driver called Stubbs, and some other help. He gets the face and is ready to go back into business. He can’t be too picky about jobs, either. He’s running low on funds. That is how he agrees to work with an old, unreliable partner by the name of Skimm. Skimm knows a waitress who has fingered an armored car job. The waitress, Alma, has a plan for pulling the job off, but she knows bupkis about pulling off heists. Skimm knows nothing about armored cars. Parker convinces them to let him take the lead planning the gig. Parker pulls in a previous guy he knows, Handy McKay, and the two of them can tell Alma is planning on crossing them. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game of stringing her along until they can figure out her scam as well as planning a decent heist. Then, Stubbs shows up with news that Dr. Adler is dead and Parker is one of three suspects. Parker has to balance the job, convincing Stubbs he’s not guilty, and then keeping the punchy driver from getting himself killed before relaying the news to Dr. Adler’s cook that Parker is innocent. May is going to be sending letters off to the syndicate with Parker’s new face’s description. Nothing in Parker’s life is easy, of course. No matter how well he tries to plan his jobs.
When Donald E. Westlake turned in the manuscript for THE HUNTER, the editor contacted the author about being interested in buying it providing Westlake would let Parker get away in the end and then make a series around the character. At this point, Westlake had been building the organized crime world in New York City in books like THE CUTIE and 361, so he must have been thinking along lines that would allow him to build a series.
THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE is both the second book in the series and a complete change of direction from the initial. Sure, it has Parker in it, but he is no longer looking for revenge. He’s turning into the operator, the thief, the planner. The world is turning against him for certain, but he takes control of a lot of circumstances. His brain is his most powerful weapon, second only by the large hands and the guns they sometimes carry.
There are some interesting reflections of THE HUNTER here. For example, antagonist Alma’s name contains an anagram of Mal, Parker’s nemesis from that first volume. The armored car scam they plan to pull off recalls elements from the arms deal Parker and his team hit in THE HUNTER, though this one is certainly less bloody. And there is a tally of dollars and cents that shows up, Parker’s life often reduced to living wages which echoes the money his life was worth in the first volume. A lot of Westlake’s books are intrigued by how the money his characters make ultimately gets used. In MEMORY, there is a tally of income versus outcome, which serves as an aide to the protagonist’s failing memory. In THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE, the money required to setup the job gets some attention as well as how the money is handled afterward. The effect is one that shows a thief in the light of an average guy who is trying to make ends meet. Or at least how to divvy loot in a world filled with organizations dedicated to minding other people’s business, particularly in the realm of sudden influxes of cash money.
This is the first time we learn of Parker’s ownership of gas stations and car lot around the country as shells against the IRS. He does not care about how those places are handled, he only cares about them as a legal front to declare income to the Feds. Parker is smart that way.
THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE is also a departure from THE HUNTER by how much ground it covers. While the first novel was stuck in a single city save for a flashback to a Pacific island and lip service to crossing the country like a hobo, book two takes Parker through scenes set across the country. He travels from Nebraska to one of the Carolinas to Florida to Ohio and more. The heist is being pulled off in New Jersey. Stubb’s trail subsequently leads Parker back to New York, on a killer’s trail.
The characters are a pirates crew of unreliable bastards and dimwitted crooks. Whereas in the later Dortmunder books released under Westlake’s own name, these dimwits might actually be loveable losers. Here, they are dangerous fools who play with matches when they should really know better. Alma thinks she knows how to pull off an armored car job, but doesn’t know the vehicles are equipped with two-way radios. She later assumes she knows how to rip off the guys who pulled the actual job . . . Skimm thinks he can control Alma, when really he has him by the short hairs and knows just how to tug to get him to move whichever way she wants him to. Stubbs thinks he can take on a murderer, and so he bargains two innocent (well, they are innocent of Dr. Adler’s murder, which is the only mystery he’s interested in solving) men’s identities. Even after Parker snatches the gun right out of his hand, Stubbs cannot see how unprepared for this mission he really is. The cook assumes she knows Parker’s game and therefore his guilt. That self-same murderer who actually bumped off Adler and turns up in the final quarter of the book thinks he has all his angles covered, though he overlooked the idea that anyone might want to get to the bottom of Dr. Adler’s slaying . . .
If there is a theme running through the book, it is one of dangerous assumptions and the consequences thereof. Even Parker is not immune to these, though his consequences are ultimately less dire – this is the perq of being a series character, after all.
Perhaps a secondary theme is the ease with which supposedly civilized men revert into animals. This is a major part of Stubb’s narrative. When he shows up to accuse Parker but learns of the thief’s innocence (so far as Dr. Adler is concerned), he plans on heading to the next person on his list. There is no plan for letting his people in Nebraska know that anyone is off the list until he heads back home with justice served. Parker cannot afford to let Stubbs go off and get killed when the robbery is so close to happening. He locks Stubbs up in the basement of the rendezvous house, a run-down farm (which may well return in the third Dortmunder novel like a set on some back lot, interestingly enough). While Stubbs is holed up there, Parker heads out to visit him daily to take him out for a walk. Handy jokes that Stubbs has become Parker’s dog and the thief does not dispute that idea. However, in the third section flip of perspective from Parker to Other Characters, we see that Stubbs has pretty well reverted to an almost animal state. By becoming a beast, he circumvents panic.
He stopped shaving and he stopped fighting back, because his brain was good enough to tell him there was no reason to shave and no reason to fight back. But other than that he didn’t do anything a more sensitive man might have done.
Since he was starting with only part of a mind anyway, it was easier for Stubbs to revert to the animal. A man with a whole brain would panic first, do all the idiotic things that come from panic, and if he survived the panic then he would be reverted to the animal. For Stubbs it was simpler and more direct. (133-134)
This model can easily be applied to several of the secondary characters in the book. None of them are upstanding “sensitive” citizens, they all live on the edge of transgression. As such, they have to rely on animal instincts, which is how I read the shorthand term “the animal”. The most successful of the lot kill when it is needed, they focus on their prey when hunting, and otherwise behave in a predatory fashion. Losing that predatory edge for even a single, solitary instant spells doom.
It is perhaps understatement to say the world Parker inhabits is not a nice one. It is a violent, cold, and horrible place. However, in the case of THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE, this is especially true for women. One disappointing aspect for me in this book is its treatment of female characters and the lack of them, really.
Alma is the most realized, and she is a classic femme fatale right out of a James M. Cain novel. She might not be smoldering hot, but she still leads men to their doom. The second most fully realized is the cook May, who is less of an idiot that her collaborators in finding justice for the dear, departed Dr. Adler. However, she has limited page time and turns out to be not that terribly interesting a character given her limited appearances. Other than those two, Parker involves himself with numerous whores following the armored car scam, and trigger warning he hurts working girls.
[Parker didn’t get his kicks from hurting whores, it was just the only way he knew to get them interested. (180)
Although the narrative indicates Parker would like to meet a girl he didn’t have to hurt to get interested, however such pickings are slim to nonexistent. It seems like even his ex-wife Lynne had masochistic tendencies. However, never fear. Parker gets a regular female character in is life who is actually interesting as the series progresses. She won’t be around for a few books, however. So, readers requiring the literary equivalent of the Bechdel test to maintain and hold their interest will likely have to give this one a pass. This is not the book you’re looking for.
In terms of echoes of other Westlake works, I was pleasantly surprised when Parker’s road tripping brought him first to Cincinnati, Ohio and then across the river to Newark, Kentucky. Newark was the kick off town for Westlake’s first collaboration with Lawrence Block, A GIRL CALLED HONEY. It was pleasant to see this place revisited by Parker, who might have walked by Honey and/or her cowardly AWOL boyfriend if this were a shared universe . . .
I wonder if some of the other locales Parker visits might have appeared in others of Westlake’s pseudonymous smut. At this point, I cannot say for certain since I have left most of those works off my reading list due to general inaccessibility.
However, THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE remains a solid second entry in the Parker series. For my money, the pieces are better than the whole. Seeing Parker in his element, planning and executing a robbery is good stuff. Seeing him getting pulled into the Dr. Adler murder is interesting enough. However fast the pacing, the book still feels like strung together pieces instead of a solid whole work though I cannot point to one specific flawed chapter or section. Maybe it is too primal for my tastes, I don’t know. Following THE HUNTER would not have been easy for any book, and in the very least THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE sets up the third volume in the series quite nicely.
Speaking of the third volume, the next CONSIDERING WESTLAKE column will focus on THE OUTFIT, the third novel in the Parker series. This time around, Parker decides to resolve his issues with the syndicate/mob/Outfit by taking the fight to them – exactly as he promised to do in THE HUNTER. For those reading along at home, check out an eBook or paperback copy.
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Stark, Richard. THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE. New York: Mysterious Press. 1998.